Anna Carroll: All in to Preserve the Union. . . But Was Questioned to the End

Rustic Fort Donelson on the Tennessee River as Anna Carroll would have seen it on an 1861 tour of Confederate fortifications prior to General Grant’s February 1862 attack.

During the Civil War, Anna Ella Carroll, began with friendly, persuasive letters to strengthen the resolve of Maryland’s Governor Thomas Holiday Hicks, a childhood friend, to keep his border state in the Union. She utilized her study of the law and experience in journalism to move the course of history.

Anna and her father, who preceded Hicks as governor, lobbied Hicks to call a Generally Assembly to determine Maryland’s future. On April 23, 1861, Maryland’s General Assembly voted 53-13 vote against the calling of a state convention to vote on secession. Though challenged by Southern forces without and within, Maryland remained in the Union for the duration of the war.

Yet as the Civil War began Hicks wrote to President Lincoln, “I feel it my duty most respectfully to advise you that no more (federal) troops will be ordered or allowed to pass through Maryland,” as he requested a truce with the South.

This at a time when Union troops were flowing from Maine down through Baltimore’s railway stations to protect the Capitol. Carroll prodded Hicks from her end and the President and his forces from the White House to maintain a link that kept Northern troops flowing South.

When Lincoln was elected President, Carroll freed her family’s remaining slaves, though it meant a sacrifice to a family now struggling financially. Prior to the war, she’d opened a school for girls on the Eastern Shore to support the family and began writing for local and regional papers, including corresponding for the National Intelligencer and the New York Evening Express.

Carroll didn’t enter the political fray until managing Governor Hicks campaign and later continued to aid campaigns of Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore, campaigning in several states as a predecessor to future presidential “spin doctors.” Filmore’s Secretary of the Treasury Tom Corwin said, “The “Art of finesse and trick in this age are worth more than wisdom of Solomon, the faith of Abraham, and the fidelity of Moses.”

“The Art of finesse and trick in this age are worth more than wisdom of Solomon, the faith of Abraham, and the fidelity of Moses.”

President Fillmore’s Secretary of the Treasury Tom Corwin

Prepared Constitutional Defense of Lincoln’s Actions

Carroll’s 1861 pamphlet Reply to Breckenridge awakened Washington to her knowledge of constitutional law and her ability to write a persuasive case. Kentucky Senator John Breckenridge and Vice President James Buchanan had questioned Lincoln’s legal authority to call out the state militia, impose martial law, and blockade the Southern states of the Confederacy. She outlined precisely where the President’s legal authority resides—his Constitutional authority to protect the nation and its people.

She’d spent many hours, years in her father’s law library that he amassed through his terms as a Maryland legislator at 21, a lawyer, judge and naval officer responsible for Baltimore harbor, then as governor. Few others had successfully taken on the mission in support of the President’s Constitutional role, so her star rose.

Lincoln’s Assistant Secretary of War Thomas Alexander Scott corresponded with Carroll after her pamphlet appeared and agreed to pay her $1500 for this and for future contributions promoting the Union cause. He came from the railroad industry and after the war became the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, then the largest publicly traded corporation in the world—not someone to act in haste. When Scott was told he did not have the authority to pay Carroll from federal funds, he paid her $1500 from his own pocket.

Carroll continued her correspondence during the Civil War, reported as a journalist, and wrote other pamphlets in support of the Union. Today the question remains if she met directly with Lincoln. Some say that he referred to her as “My Dear Lady.”

Lincoln may have known of Carroll’s travels through his Secretary of State Edwin Stanton, who had earlier appointed the man who traveled with her, Lemuel D. Evans. He had just returned from service as a special agent of the federal government to monitor weapon and supply movements from Mexico into Texas. This prior role ended when it became unsafe for Evans to return to Texas because of his pro-Union activities as as a former Texas Congressman.

Evans role in 1861 — to accompany Ms. Carroll to St. Louis and through the South to his native Tennessee, serving as a joint guide, military escort and bodyguard.

Reconnaissance on the Tennessee

Anna’s analytical mind and legal background joined to complete research about the Confederate’s defenses and military movements, specifically on the secondary rivers–the Tennessee and the Cumberland to determine the best course to win the war. She learned about ships and waterways from her father, a U.S. Navy Captain who managed Baltimore Harbor traffic and believed ships and waterways played a vital role in security and commerce.

Some saw the disadvantages of being a female in a war zone, but her gender made it easier for Carroll to slip in where a male military officer might be suspect. She sought out Evans, who came to Washington as an elected Congressman from Texas in March 1855. Evans’ knowledge of the Constitution as chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court and his military background enhanced his value to the project and Lincoln during the Civil War.

In August 1861 Judge Evans’ and Carroll traveled to St. Louis to gather intelligence, then continued down the Mississippi to the Tennessee to scout Confederate fortifications and deliver messages to Union officers. Along the Tennessee River and into its tributaries, like the Cumberland, the Confederacy looked weak and open for conquest, which could split the South.

Carroll’s reporting about the weaknesses of Confederate defenses along the secondary rivers went to the Secretary of War and Lincoln in January 1861. Grant started his campaign up the Tennessee in February 1861, easily overcoming the defenses at Forts Donelson and Henry before going on to Nashville. With the use of technology for directions, the telegraph provided time for Carroll’s report to be considered in the decision to move via the Tennessee, as an easier target than the wider, better defended Mississippi. No one else had been assigned to provide reconnaissance of this alternate route to the heart of the Confederacy.

Correspondent across Political and Geographical Lines

She corresponded with Lincoln’s Secretaries of War, Navy and Attorney General Edward Bates while continuing to trade letters with Jefferson Davis and key Southern Senators, using her keen writing style to gather information from parties on all sides. While Lincoln is remembered for his appreciation of beautiful women, he didn’t include women in his political campaigns, but could have worked through an intermediary. The trunks said to contain the correspondence between Carroll and Lincoln have never been located, possibly lost in travel, a fire, taken by a political opponent, or only imagined, but this last is unlikely from the support Carroll received from those close to Lincoln.

It is more likely the term “My Dear Lady” came from Secretary of War Stanton. He is quoted when the question of her payment arose after the war: “Her whole course was the most remarkable in the war; she found herself, got no pay, and did the great work that made others famous.”

Carroll’s insider view came about because she made it her business to know the thoughts of others. Anna wasn’t above using female wiles and intuition. She determined the strength of the Southern resolve long before others in the North by listening to the conversations of male political leaders “who talked off guard in her presence when they’d had a bit too much (wine or bourbon) and were stirred in their vanity by the absorbed attention of a lady.”

Carroll had a knack for developing friendships and maintaining them even with former beau, whose proposals she’d rejected, like James Buchanan, who remained a bachelor for the remainder of his life.

Her pamphlets and other writing supported her financially. She used her own credit and slim reserves from November 1860 to September 1861 to pay for a room in the Washington Hotel, near the White House, and a maid and a manservant to assist with her weekly salons. There leading ‘traitors” attended along with Unionists, which helped her gain inside knowledge that she passed on to the President or Stanton and cabinets on both sides of the divide, which might have made her a spy. She remained an ardent Unionist.

Her correspondence with her other acquaintances, who she’d met through her father, included Mississippi Governor Quitman, who wrote her a letter in 1850 that urged Southerners to secretly organize for a coup to take them out of the union and “set a fiery cross throughout the land and send ever gallant son of Mississippi to the rescue.” The flaming cross gained a fearful meaning long before it was taken up as a scourge of racial hatred by the Ku Klux Klan.

Miss Carroll’s associates claimed that she, not General U.S. Grant, devised the Tennessee-Cumberland campaign, was eventually confirmed by every Congressional committee that reviewed it years later in 1876 when President Grant was a lame duck.

Then the whole question of Miss Carroll’s role in the war was subjected to an in-depth examination by the House Committee on Military Affairs and printed by Order of Congress. She received the title Major General of the Armies of the Republic, but no funds were attached to the title. Samuel T. Williams, editor of The Congressional Globe, which was The Congressional Record of that time, said, “No woman not born to sovereign sway has ever done so much to avert the threatened ruin of her country.”

Not until 1870 did her case for payment for her pamphlets finally come before the House Armed Services Committee. She’d waited after the assassination of Lincoln, for whom she completed the work, through President Johnson, then Grant who may have not wanted to discuss a woman’s role in clearing the way for his Tennessee campaign. Then Garfield’s death put other matters in the forefront before the House Armed Services Committee. Carroll, then 74 and not in good health, had waited to have her appeal. She waited through one political crisis after another, much more patiently than her male counterparts.

Fifteen years after the war, in 1876, the U.S. House of Representatives accorded her the rank of Major General of the Armies and a meager pension, but no back pay for her printing contracts, since her contractors had died decades earlier. Five Congressional committees had voted to pay Carroll, but Congress never approved the appropriation.


A Woman in Lincoln’s Cabinet. . . or A Political Publicity Hound?

Anna Ella Carroll, daughter of Maryland’s Governor prior to the Civil War, consumed his law library at an early age to become a political writer and pro-Union advocate.

Unrecognized by most Americans today, Anna Ella Carroll made her way in the male-dominated world of 1850’s politics by asking the right questions and explaining complicated legal matters in laymen’s terms–the power of her pen.

Much of border-state Maryland around her embraced the South, she clung to the Union and maintained long-term, pen-pal relationships with the leading men of her time on both sides of the political/geographical divide.

Her life as the eldest child of Governor Thomas Carroll in Pre-Civil War Maryland may explain the intellectual curiosity that led her to enter her father’s law library at four. There Anna consumed the sense and nature of the law–the foundation for her future work in politics and writing.

The fire she carried for democracy rises from her paternal grandfather, Charles Carroll, who signed the Declaration of Independence. Her youth, spent living on the Eastern Shore at Kingston Hall on a 2,000-acre tobacco plantation with 200 slaves, explains her Southern ties.

The falling price of tobacco and the Panic of 1837 forced the Carroll’s to sell the plantation and move to Warwick, a three-story brick home and smaller plantation on the Choptank River. When she was 22, Anna and Leah, a slave girl from the Carroll Plantation and skilled seamstress, moved to Baltimore (second largest U.S. city then), where Leah listened to the gossip about new businesses in the homes where she worked sewing dresses for the elite.

Anna would track down the owners, often the wives and daughters of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad executives, and generate publicity and advertising for their businesses—a need they didn’t realize until the rail industry swiftly became competitive.

Anna worked for seven years in Baltimore establishing her credential as a publicity writer and became active in the Whig Party, meeting people like then Army Chief of Staff Winfield Scott, who discussed his war strategies in the invasion of Mexico with her. Anna began to sit regularly in the Senate visitor’s gallery, where she met future Presidents Zachary Taylor, James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore.  She gained skill writing letters to party officials to influence political decisions, gaining a reputation for “scheming, conniving and maneuvering as well as any man.”

Female Campaign Director in 1858

Carroll likely was the first female campaign director by writing editorials and honing her skills to craft and send letters in support of the Union to newspaper editors—a low-tech version of the modern press release.

Anna helped convince enough Marylanders that the state should remain with the Union, that when a vote came in the Assembly, they stayed, even if just barely. Her letters went to newspapers in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. and every weekly and daily papers in a 50-mile radius. Her friendly correspondence continued with her distinguished friends on both sides of America’s divide, which provided insider information for Lincoln, giving him a unique perspective on the opinions of Southern public and important opinion makers.

She became the pen in support of Thomas Holliday Hicks, a family friend from childhood, who became Maryland’s governor in 1858. Hicks proved to be a complicated man, who agreed to keep Maryland in the Union, but favored slavery and opposed abolition.

Strange Political Bedfellows

Anna Carroll, Abraham Lincoln, and Jefferson Davis had supported the 1848 candidacy of Zachary Taylor as the only Whig who could win. Their previous choice, Henry Clay, had lost three Presidential elections, despite his claim as leader of the Whig Party.

Anna called on the new President Taylor at the beginning of his term to establish her role early on. Jefferson Davis, who would become the U.S. Senator from Mississippi and future Secretary of War prior to the Civil War, fell in love with Taylor’s daughter, strengthening his ties when he married her, but the two men were never close and became estranged when she died early in the marriage. Davis became one of Carroll’s correspondents, giving her an insight into the Confederacy that few Yankees had. She would sign her correspondence with him, “most affectionate regards.”

When the Whig Party declined in 1854, Anna joined the American Party (Know Nothings), which was formed because Southerners and border state Whigs disagreed over slavery.  The American Party took an anti-slavery stance but fought against Catholic control of politics and the ballot box and what they perceived as use of funds being taken from public schools for use by private Catholic schools.

If you’re familiar with Maryland or Catholic history, her opposition to Catholicism seems surprising since her relative, John Carroll, became the first American bishop and archbishop and eventually the founder of Georgetown University. Anna came from a family divided by religion with her mother a strong Protestant, which almost prevented her marriage to Anna’s father.

When the American Party began in the 1840s, it was also xenophobic and hostile to immigration as great numbers of Irish were coming to America during the Great Potato Famine and as Germans were fleeing the 1848 Revolution and began working in the rail yards and ports. Know Nothings’ ranks in Maryland grew as laborers struck Baltimore’s Ironworks, and the Democratic Party refused to help them. Anti-slavery Democrats sought a party to support as their party moved to support slavery .

Carroll urged “Americans to take back their votes—settle problems through the ‘ancient process of democracy by an honest expression of will of most genuine citizens.’ Anne successfully used this issue to assist in bringing the American Party in line with the Whigs, which helped provide Lincoln the numbers he needed to win the Presidency in 1860.

Carroll greatly expanded her political and press contacts with the publication of two party-related books during the 1856 campaign: The Great American Battle or The Contest Between Christianity and Political Romanism and The Star of the West and the pamphlet “The Union of the States,” a virulent criticism of the political influence of the Roman Catholic Church under the papacy of Pius IX.  Anna criticized the “buying and selling of the papal (Catholic) vote” like a hogshead of tobacco or a bale of cotton to win an election and retain power until they can hang out a signal of disunion. 

Carroll’s Role in Presidential Politics

Millard Fillmore, the last Whig to become President, took over the Presidency after the death of Zachary Taylor in July 1850. He sought out Anna as a confidant after the death of his first wife. Anna wrote and researched a pamphlet for the American Party outlining the failings of his opponent James Buchanan, who did in the end win the Presidency in 1856. Filmore gained just twenty percent of the vote with the endorsement of the Know Nothing Party, keeping his affiliation with the American Party under wraps.

Filmore should be better remembered for his role in passage of the Compromise of 1850—the bargain establishing a truce in the battle over slavery by establishing a horizontal line between slave and free states. But this just postponed the Civil War—didn’t prevent what seemed inevitable. The political tug of war between the Northern and Southern politicians began long before 1856, yet the Presidential campaign threw Carroll headlong into this heated debate.

Indiana Congressman Caleb Smith made Lincoln aware of Anna Carroll’s writing. Despite Filmore’s mediocre showing, Smith believed she could aid Lincoln’s campaign as she seemed to be capable of making the case among American Party members, who opposed slavery and were becoming an important voting bloc.

By helping to bridge this gap and bring these voters to the Republican side, despite their anti-immigrant stance, she helped swing a vote with a slim margin (Northern votes only) to Lincoln. The importance of her efforts to gain these voters brought the two together.

Lincoln had a contract drawn up during the Civil War to pay her $50,000 for a series of writings. After the election in the week before his inauguration, Lincoln camped out in the Willard Hotel up the block from his future residence. There in a shabby side conference room, he met those who helped get him elected. These were people who Lincoln would depend upon as he led the nation through war. Anna, the pro-Union Maryland native, may very well have been one of those people—one of very few women with the knowledge, ability and scope to provide aid to a nation on the brink.

With all her contacts across the country (St. Louis, Baltimore, New Orleans, Richmond, etc.), Carroll had more to offer and across various political persuasions, offered a perspective he could not find in others.

The value he placed on her work suggest she could have been one of the people he met in Washington at the Willard Hotel, where he and his family stayed prior to the Inauguration on March 4, 1861. But no records have been found.

Freeing Her Slaves

When Lincoln became President, Anna freed the twenty slaves she’d inherited from her father and persuaded abolitionists to accompany them to safety into Canada.  This helped prove to Lincoln her commitment to him and the Republicans, showed the strength of her loyalty to the Union.

Anna Carroll and Abraham Lincoln shared a common mission: to prevent the nation’s government from total control by the Southern Democrats, who at the time regarded the government “with distrust and aversion, as an agency mainly of corruption, oppression, and robbery,” Showing how history does repeat itself in a mirror image. (New York Tribune, 2 June 1948 in William Brock, Parties and Political Conscience: American Dilemmas, 1840-1850, (Millwood, NY: KTO Press, 1979), 12.

With the country two steps from all-out war, he desperately needed eyes and ears, voice and pen in Maryland and throughout Washington. Already she’d begun her research into the nation’s defense and military movements.

Stay tuned next week for Anna Ella Carroll’s travels through military camps in the South during the Civil War. Academics argue for her role in shifting the Northern strategy to a winning one. See if you agree next week.

Anna Ella Carroll’s story appeared in My Dear Lady, in the University of Texas’s (UT) main library in a book Marjorie Barstow Greenbie wrote in 1940. Greenbie also found Carroll in a library—the card catalog at the Library of Congress. I read the version reprinted in 1974 in Women in America.